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January 1, 2008

Not too long ago, an adult host who allowed teenagers to drink would not be held liable for injuries caused by the intoxicated teenager. In the 2003 case of Wakulic v. Mraz, the Illinois Supreme Court held that a social host could not be held liable for the death of the 16-year old who had consumed a quart of vodka. In that case, Michael Mraz, 21 years old, and Brian Mraz, 18 years old, induced 16-year old Elizabeth to drink a quart of vodka. They did so by offering her money, by goading her, and by applying great social pressure. After consuming the entire bottle of vodka, Elizabeth lost consciousness. She was placed in the family room by Michael and Brian where they observed her vomiting profusely and making gurgling sounds. Michael and Brian allegedly refused to drive Elizabeth home, did not contact her parents, did not seek medical attention, and prevented other individuals from calling 911. Dennis Mraz, the father of Michael and Brian, ordered his two sons to remove Elizabeth from their home, which they did. Elizabeth died later that day. A lawsuit was filed on behalf of Elizabeth’s estate. It went all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court, which upheld a trial court decision dismissing the lawsuit. The Supreme Court followed a long the line of cases holding that since the Illinois Dram Shop Act did not extend liability to social hosts, no cause of action was available against a social host who provided the alcoholic beverages.

The Illinois Dram Shop Act applies to licensed commercial vendors who cause the intoxication of a patron who subsequently causes injury. The law, however, did not extend beyond those in the business of serving alcohol. The Mraz decision reflected the law in the State of Illinois for more than 40 years prior to the decision. The Supreme Court justices pointed out that it was up to the legislature to change the law concerning the responsibility of social hosts.

The legislature responded. As of October 1, 2004, pursuant to the provisions of the “Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act,” a social host can be liable for injuries caused by serving liquor to a minor. The Act provides for damages against a person who wilfully supplies alcoholic liquor or illegal drugs to anyone under age 18. It allows the injured person or the surviving next of kin to sue for damages, as well as attorneys’ fees, litigation expenses, and punitive damages.

Less than a month after the law took effect, Melissa W. and her friends attended a Halloween party in Lake County hosted by a stable and a hay-ride company. Free beer was available, and the teens were not required to show identification to drink. Angela C., then 16, drank two beers at the party and later made an illegal left turn when the girls’ vehicle collided with a truck. Melissa was thrown from the car and suffered serious and permanent nerve damage in her lower left leg and left hand. Angela plead guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol. Melissa’s claim was recently settled for $1,800,000.00. The hay-ride company paid $625,000.00. The equestrian center paid $950,000.00. Angela and the other driver paid $275,000.00. This case illustrates the kind of damages that can be awarded in cases of serious injury or death resulting in the negligence of an intoxicated underage driver. Your homeowners insurance may cover you for some damages in such a lawsuit. However, it is against public policy to provide insurance coverage for punitive damages.

In another recent case, Jeffrey and Sarah Hutsell, of Deerfield, Illinois, were convicted of endangering the life of a child and lying to police investigating a fatal crash involving teenagers in an underage drinking party at their home. They were convicted of a misdemeanor that provides a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a fine of $2,500.00. Mr. Hutsell was sentenced to 14 days of confinement.

In response to the Hutsell case, the Illinois legislature increased the penalties for adults who knowingly permit underage drinking in their homes. Under the new law, if a person’s conduct results in injury or death, it would be considered a Class 4 felony. If convicted, the penalty could be up to three years in prison, and a fine of up to $25,000.00.

The possible consequences to parents who allow their house to be used for a drinking party that results in death or injury to an underage child are: (1) the parents can be prosecuted criminally and sentenced up to three years in a penitentiary and fined up to $25,000.00; and (2) the parents can be sued civilly. In a case involving death or serious injury, it is conceivable that a verdict could be in excess of $1,000,000.00. Part of the verdict might be an award of punitive damages. Your insurance will not cover a punitive damage judgment. You also cannot discharge in bankruptcy a punitive damage judgment. You also have to live with the fact that your permissive conduct resulted in the death or serious injury to a teenager.

If your children are pushing for an underage liquor party, give them a copy of this article. Tell them that I said they cannot have such a party